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Banff National Park/other parks, Alberta, Canada

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Did You Know … ?

  • Banff is Canada’s oldest national park, dating from 1885.
  • Wood Buffalo National Park is a UNESCO site larger than Switzerland.
  • Elk Island National Park is completely fenced in.
  • The population in Banff, the town, is limited to 10,000.
  • Water flows to three oceans from the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park.

The Rockies highlighted

Banff National Park, with its beautiful setting in the Rocky Mountains, is one of Canada’s most popular parks, attracting 4 million visitors from around the world each year. People come for the rugged beauty, outdoor activities and wildlife viewing.

Some guests also come to stay in the historic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a facility built to emulate a Scottish baronial castle — and it looks the part. The town of Banff is attractive, too, for restaurants, shops and museums.

The park’s beginnings were a bit inauspicious. Three railroad workers stumbled onto a hot springs on Alberta’s side of the Rockies and that became the centerpiece for a 14-square-mile park in 1885. Today, the park is 2,564 square miles of quite varied terrain, lakes, glaciers, flora and fauna — variable weather, too.

Choices for activities include boating, camping, canoeing, cycling, downhill skiing, hiking, horseback riding and mountain climbing, for starters. It’s a long list.

The park hosts bald eagles along with about 260 other bird species, but is especially known for its mammals, which include bighorn sheep, cougars, elk, grizzlies, moose and mountain goats among a total of 54 species.

In addition, Banff’s summertime meadows are brilliant with the colors of wild flowers.

Alberta’s other national parks are:

  • Elk Island National Park, a preserve on the plains, meant to protect rare and endangered species. These include plains bison and elk, as well as other mammals and some 230 woodland, meadow and wetland birds.
  • Jasper National Park of Canada, in the Rockies north of Banff. It is noted for its glaciers (Columbia Icefield) and its unique overhead Dark Sky Preserve.
  • Waterton Lakes National Park, the third of Alberta’s parks highlighting the Rockies, and the southernmost, abutting Montana’s Glacier National Park. Together, the two parks comprise the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
  • Wood Buffalo National Park, the world’s second largest national park (after Northeast Greenland), established to protect wood bison. Other species, large and small, benefit, too, including the peregrine falcon and whooping crane. The park also supports traditional activities of aboriginal residents.

Banff, Jasper, Waterton and Wood Buffalo are or are part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Things to do for Venturers

  • At Banff, go ice climbing at Johnston Canyon. Or, head across the park’s landscape on cross-country or snowshoe trails.
  • In summer, consider biking, camping, horseback riding or mountain climbing in Alberta’s parks.
  • There are hiking trails galore. Bring your backpack and boots, and choose a trail that fits you. Jasper National Park has more than 600 miles of trails, for example. At Banff, take a helicopter to gain access to high-altitude trails.
  • Put on snowshoes or cross-country skis for winter explorations in the Wood Buffalo National Park. Or, in summer, canoe on the park’s Pine Lake.
  • Try dogsledding at Banff, and do some of the mushing yourself.
  • The Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park is described as the most accessible glacier in North America. Access it on a guided ice walk.

Things to do for Centrics

  • In summer, canoe on Lake Louise at Banff. Or, in winter, ice skate on its frozen surface, or go skiing at one of Banff’s three ski areas.
  • Enjoy the scenery in national parks on horseback or from the seat of a bicycle.
  • On a clear night, lie on the ground to stare into Jasper’s Dark Sky Preserve. The park is committed to protect and promote the park’s nocturnal habitat and the visibility of the dark skies.
  • Take a guided half-day hiking tour to Banff’s Sunshine Meadows in summer when those meadows, known for their colorful flowers, are in full bloom. Jasper National Park has its share of alpine meadows carpeted in wildflowers, too.
  • Go bird-watching at Waterton Lakes, where more than 250 bird species have been identified. Migrating birds provide a seasonal show. Or, look for migratory waterfowl in Wood Buffalo at its Peace-Athabasca Delta in spring or fall. Also, look for whooping cranes in this park.
  • Go kayaking or sailing on Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park. Also, play golf or sunbathe in the park (but swimming is not recommended).

Things to do for Authentics

  • Sleep at a National Historic Site of Canada, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. While in town, take a float trip on the Bow River. Check out the town’s museums, too.
  •  Stalk wildlife (with your camera) in any of Alberta’s national parks. Look for bears, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, mountain goats, moose or wolves among the large mammals. Bald eagles fly in Canada’s parks, too!
  • Treat yourself to spa services at Banff or Lake Louise.
  • Drive the scenic Icefields Parkway between the Banff and Jasper parks. Vistas include the Columbia Icefield at the southern end of Jasper National Park. Or, drive along the Chief Mountain Highway at Waterton Lakes to see the site of the 1998 Sofa Mountain Fire. See the area in its renewal phase.
  • Take a boat tour down the Upper Waterton Lake.
  • Look for plains bison (as well as elk and more) in the Elk Island National Park. Or look for the wood bison in the Wood Buffalo National Park, which was created to protect them.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Travel Alberta at